Apple rules CES 2013 from 529 miles away

CES 2013 was chock-full of Apple product tie-ins, even though Apple isn't giving companies a lot of guidance. That's my takeaway.

Credit: Photo by Nrbelex on Flickr

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is underway in Las Vegas. More than 33,000 exhibitors are trying to impress and sell more than 150,000 attendees on their real and speculative wares. I spent three days covering CES 2013 for iLounge, and I came away with this conclusion: the biggest story involved inaction by a company that wasn’t there at all.

Apple’s products were everywhere, actually, as nearly every company, whether in a cubicle meeting room or a house-sized booth with laser projections and professional dancers, was eager to show their connectivity with iPhones and iPads. Sure, Android devices were welcome to the smorgasbord, but more in the spirit of universal, non-branded compatibility: Bluetooth, micro USB, NFC, and lots of apps that worked with iOS “and Android.” Apple has the highest nominal market capitalization of any company in the world; ignore the firm at your company’s peril.

But Apple has been slow and quite particular in which companies it allows to create accessories that utilize its Lightning connection standard, which is what powers the iPhone 5, the fifth-generation iPad, the iPad mini, and any Apple device released from here until the next big switch. Apple creates special authentication chips for officially licensed Lightning cables and accessories. There are unofficial knock-offs one can emulate, but expect to hear from Apple’s legal team, especially if you display your wares at something like CES.

In other words, firms with established histories and proven manufacturing prowess—Belkin, Incipio, Tylt, and so forth—have future-proof Lightning ports and chargers, while the smaller firms, the cheap-o substitutes, the airport last-resort cable makers, and the intriguing indie projects do not. In fact, Apple bascially scuttled a fairly popular Kickstarter project by denying the project’s attempt to include both the older 30-pin connector and a Lightning charger, though it later changed its policy.

It’s not just also-ran accessories that have to vye with a very powerful market force that hardly ever speaks. Pebble, the closely watched smartphone-syncing smart watch (that also started as a very, very popular Kickstarter) held its first-ever press conference at CES 2013. A long-awaited ship date was announced, a working watch was shown, and some new details were revealed. Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky made sure to note that, while Android allowed Pebble to interact with the phone’s core functions and other apps, Pebble’s team went through “dips and dives” to work around restrictions in Apple’s iOS. In fact, when asked if Pebble would, unlike other attempts at smart watches, take text message notifications from iPhones, Migicovsky said yes, but only through a “work-around” that the firm would let developers know about, presumably under a non-disclosure agreement.

There are many companies who made a living filling a lower-price or alternative use niche for Apple accessories, and many are going to be out of business soon. I don’t know if that’s an entirely bad thing. But there are not many Lightning-ready devices at CES 2013, yet there were many more Bluetooth-compatible devices still reaching out for Apple device owners. Apple can move hundreds of companies’ business plans around, just by moving at their own pace and not giving out a lot of information. That’s the main impression I received from CES 2013.

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